During the Clinton administration, Henry Kissinger quipped about then-National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, “You can’t expect a trade lawyer to be a grand strategist.” Today again, foreign policy is overseen by lawyers such as Tom Donilon and Hillary Clinton who give advice on specific events and problems but not guidance on the bigger picture. As a result, Obama’s speeches remain mellifluous but no longer really register abroad, other than to frustrate for their lack of clear purpose. As Kissinger wrote, “A statesman’s job is to resolve complexity, not just contemplate it.”
Overcoming decades of complacent triumphalism requires a fundamental recognition that the alternative to American hegemony is not necessarily chaos but a potentially self-ordering world. We have to stop pretending that massive expenditure on wars of choice gets filed on the global balance sheet as “underwriting global security” or “provision of global public goods.” Like it or not, the U.S. no longer serves as the world’s geopolitical anchor. Indeed, America is no longer the constant but itself a variable. The downgrading of its debt rating has been more than huge embarrassment; it casts doubt on whether America’s cherished notion of a deep-rooted capacity for national renewal.
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